The roars and the magic returned to golf Sunday at the Masters as Tiger Woods, among all the things he has accomplished across a storied career, managed to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
Taking a two-shot lead with a birdie on the 16th hole at Augusta National, Woods was the focused killer he used to be before all the injuries and personal problems and doubts about whether he could play at a high level again. Sunday afternoon, his fifth green jacket, his first in 14 years and first major victory in nearly 11 years became a joyous inevitability at Augusta as Woods became the oldest Masters winner since Jack Nicklaus in 1986.
When it was over, his final putt tucked into the cup at 18, Woods broke into a huge grin and raised his arms high. He fell into a long embrace with his caddie, Joe La Cava, and then made a beeline to his son, Charlie, grabbing him in the kind of tight hug that he used to share with his father when he won all those championships. He hugged his mother and his daughter, Sam, who was an infant the last time he won. Then he made his way to turn in his card, greeted along the way by other golfers (some Masters champions, some now) as the roar gave way to “Tiger!” chants.
If there were any doubts about Woods’s ability to close as he once did, they ended with his tee shot at the par-3 16th. As his ball rolled slowly toward the hole, he mouthed “come on, come on” over and over. It wasn’t an ace, but it was a tap-in birdie from a few feet, enough to send the crowd into a certified Tiger frenzy with his mother, son and daughter watching anxiously and Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps looking on.
With a birdie at the 15th hole, it looked as if Woods just might write one of the great comeback stories in sports, moving to 13 under and taking the lead outright with three holes to play. Dustin Johnson had a chance to tie him on 18, but missed his birdie putt.
The Masters had taken a fun turn (unless your name is Francesco Molinari) with Johnson joining him and Woods in a five-way tie atop the leader board along with Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka with only a previous few holes remaining in the early afternoon. Molinari, who flirted with disaster all day long, found it again at 15, when his ball hit a tree and landed in the water. He ended up with a double bogey, his second of the day, and also had two bogeys through 15. With that, there briefly was a four-way tie atop the leader board until Woods did his thing.
Briefly, there had been the possibility of a long shot winner, but Patrick Cantley quickly coughed up the lead he had taken with a bogey at 16. Cantley’s surge was a surprise after barely making the cut at plus-two. Cantlay, who has had 13 birdies, one eagle and one bogey since making the cut, briefly took the lead by one stroke at 12 under. How, you ask?
Molinari sent his tee shot at 12 straight into the drink and finally, his dances with disaster had consequences, a double-bogey that dropped him to second place. No sooner had Cantlay, who was six under for the day through 15 holes, moved into the lead than he was joined by Schauffele, who was four under through 14.
Meanwhile, over on 16, we have the day’s second hole-in-one, this one from Justin Thomas.
Woods appeared to be struggling a bit on 11, with his ball ending up just behind pine trees on the crunchy path, while the leader, Francesco Molinari, and Tony Finau found the fairway. Woods’s putt went wide and he managed a par to stay at 11 under. Molinari managed par, too, staying at 13 under.
Meanwhile, up ahead on 12, both Ian Poulter and Koepka, who shared second place with Woods at 11 under, sending shots into the water and there was some movement on the leader board. Bubba Watson and Jason Day also got to 10 under. Koepka and Poulter both fell to nine under.
The 10th hole looked like a trip into “The Twilight Zone.” Woods sent his tee shot to the side, behind a magnolia, while Molinari and Finau went the other way, sending their shots down a steep hill. Finau’s shot was a beauty, ending up a foot or two from the flag. Molinari took relief because of a drain head and nearly put his shot into the hole. He was left with a short uphill putt for par and he did what Molinari does: he drained the putt to stay at 13-under and lead by two strokes. Woods’s putt for par came up short and the bogey, his third of the final round, put him at 11 under. Finau ended up with a bogey, too, ending up at 10 under with Ian Poulter, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay.
The play on nine was excruciating. As Molinari’s roller-coaster ride continued, Woods faced a 50-foot putt for birdie and a share of the lead and darned if he didn’t send the ball rolling toward the hole, tantalizingly, agonizingly slowly. It was dead on, but landed an inch or so short and he settled for par, unable to gain a stroke. That put the pressure on Molinari, whose putt for par held off Woods. Finau came away with par as well.
Can Molinari regain his bearings and become unflappable again? After foundering a bit and coming off a bogey, he landed within a foot of the hole for a birdie on 8, a better position than either Woods (who was behind a TV support) and Finau. Molinari did it again, hitting a lengthy putt for a birdie that put him back at 13 under. Over to you, Tiger. Woods kept up the pressure, converting a birdie putt that put him at 12 under, still one stroke back. Finau managed a par put that kept him tied with Brooks Koepka at 11 under as Ian Poulter dropped to 10 under, where he was joined by Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele.
With his tee shot on 7 finding the trees as the wind picked up, Molinari continued to make an adventure of the final round, with Woods, Finau, Koepka and Poulter, all at 10 under and seeking to punish him for it. Molinari finished with a bogey and Woods took advantage, closing to 11 under — one stroke behind Molinari. Koepka, playing one hole ahead of the leaders, did the same, moving to 11 under. Finau and Poulter remained at 10 under.
Molinari, for the second straight hole, looked human as his tee shot at the par-3 sixth hole found the patrons and he took relief with a drop before his second shot, which bounced nicely to leave him with a six-foot putt for par. Woods couldn’t capitalize on Molinari’s predicament and, Molinari seized the moment with a par putt to maintain the three-stroke edge on Woods and Finau. So much for any thought that Molinari might crack there. So far, he’s showing the nerves he showed at Carnoustie last summer.
Molinari found his first bit of trouble on the par-4 fifth hole, with his first shot going off to the side. He recovered nicely, sending a little shot from the fringe just past the hole, and neither Woods nor Finau could do much to challenge him. With par at the hole, Molinari stayed at 13 under, while Woods and Finau fell to three strokes off the pace with bogeys. They had company because, over on the sixth green, Koepka’s bogey dropped him to three strokes back as well.
As the leaders approached the fourth hole, the wind began whipping up, coming from multiple directions. It seems as if those forecasts might be on the money. Here’s Tom Boswell on the golfers’ tee shots on the fourth hole.
(Spoiler: Woods gives back the stroke he picked up on 3 with his first bogey; Molinari regains his two-stroke lead over Woods, Finau and Brooks Koepka by parring the hole.)
Wood’s tee shot on the third hole was the antithesis of his effort on No. 2, nestling onto the green and closer to the hole than either Molinari or Finau. With Molinari and Finau parring the hole, Woods pounced with a birdie that put him one stroke back of Molinari, who remains the leader at 13 under. Finau and Koepka are another stroke back at 11 under.
Woods found a bit of trouble early, with his tee shot on the second hole flying wide left and down a hill into pine straw while playing partners Molinari, the leader at 13 under par, and Finau were safely in the fairway. As Woods and Finau found they had company at two shots off the lead when Brooks Koepka birdied the second hole, Woods send his second shot skittering onto the fairway and out of trouble. He salvaged par on the par-5 hole, as did Molinari and Finau.
Woods and Finau — each trailing Molinari by two strokes — teed off at 9:20 a.m. with the three making par on the first hole. Golfers have been grouped in threesomes and started from the first and 10th tees in the concession to the weather forecast.
For one golfer, the day began with a bang, as Bryson DeChambeau struck a hole-in-one on the par-3, 179-yard 16th hole.
Golfers are in groups of three and starting from the first and 10th tees. The group behind the leaders is formidable enough to promise an interesting and possibly wild finish. Brooks Koepka is lurking three shots back, with Webb Simpson and Ian Poulter four behind and Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele among those five back.
Woods, wearing his signature red mock turtleneck, faced a schedule adjustment as he fights Father Time and Mother Nature simultaneously for another major. Now 43, he has had “four knee surgeries and four back surgeries,” as he put it, and his physical condition requires concessions.
“This is going to be different,” Woods, seeking his 15th major, told CBS on Saturday. “Normally we get to sleep in on Sundays if we play well but [Sunday] will be an early wake up call, get the body going, get the mind ready. This’ll be a little bit different going off two tees, threesomes.”
How early? “I’ll probably wake up around 4 or 3:45ish and start the process of getting this body ready,” he said with a smile. The upside of that? There’s less time to get nervous, waiting for an afternoon tee time.
He wasn’t the only one getting an early start Sunday. Molinari, the Italian player who won the British Open, was on the practice area two hours before his tee time.
Trump is keeping an eye on Tiger
Tiger the elder
Back in 1997, when Woods won his first Masters, Molinari was 14 and Finau, who was 7 then, took a moment to think about what young golfers have learned from Woods. “The way I look at it,” Finau said Saturday, “Tiger taught us how to compete. Meaning: You shouldn’t cheer anybody. Tiger, we’re the aftermath, if you will, of the Tiger Effect. The way he dominated and watching him growing up, it was like he was scared of nobody.”
Better waterproof the green jacket
Masters officials have made another change. There will be no ceremony on the course when the tournament ends. Officials want fans off the course with severe weather expected sometime between 3 and 4 p.m.
Why change now?
Woods went to the wayback machine and has been rocking mock turtlenecks all week, just as he did in his heyday. On Sunday morning, it was back.
“I thought it was a pretty neat look back in the day,” Woods joked Tuesday. “I was probably in a little better shape back in those days, but I had won events wearing the mock, and I’ve always enjoyed wearing them.”